Lazer Team (2016)
What makes a disappointing comedy? It’s a question I kept thinking about while watching the sci-fi comedy Lazer Team from the online comedy collective better known as Rooster Teeth, responsible for the longest running online Web series, Red vs. Blue. These are people who know how to be funny. They have a fine resume of shorts to prove their comedy bonafides, but what was it about their first foray into features that diminished their funny? I’ll try my best to provide a critical autopsy for the case subject of Lazer Team, a disjointed and disappointing buddy comedy that died on screen.
A concerned alien species has sent a warning to Earth. A hostile alien race is heading toward our planet with the intent to conquer, pitting their champion fighter against a champion from Earth. This gladiatorial showdown inspires Earth’s military and scientists to train a select warrior (Alan Ritchson) from birth for this mission. The problem is that the wrong people get hold of that alien technology. Disrespected sheriff Hagan (Burnie Burns), his old high school has been pal Herman (Colton Dunn), redneck moron Woody (Gavin Free), and insufferable quarterback Zach (Michael Jones) come across a downed alien ship that they happened to knock out of the sky with drunken fireworks. Each of the foursome puts on a piece of the alien armor, which attaches permanently. Herman gets a pair of super fast boots, Woody a helmet that instantly makes him smarter and British, Zach an arm canon, and Hagan a retractable shield. The bickering idiots are forced to work together over the fate of the planet, and the warring alien species has sent a few of its parasitic infantry to retrieve the special suit.
To be fair, Lazer Team is not an atrocious comedy that singes your eyeballs with pain, something along the likes of InAPPropriate Comedy or any Friedberg/Seltzer suckfest. You can tell that the Rooster Teeth squad understands the tenets of comedy and what makes for a good joke, which is what makes their final product all the more baffling. For my pal George Bailey, there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy (his worst film for 2015 was Mortdecai). A comedy has one job to do and that is to make people laugh. This should be obvious but you’d be surprised at how often this principle seems to get lost. Rarely does a larger budget make a comedy funnier, a lesson learned the hard way over and over again with Hollywood. With Rooster Teeth’s first movie, they wanted to make a throwback to the sci-fi buddy comedies of the 80s. They raised almost two and a half million dollars via the crowd-source site Indiegogo, a record until Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers 2. It feels odd to say that what amounts to a meager budget by most productions could be at fault for the ultimate disappointment, but I think it leads into the chief problem of the movie: prioritizing the action over the humor.
It’s not uncommon for the comedy to get obliterated by the action in action-comedies, but from a comedy collective I was hoping for more emphasis on the ha-ha and less on the kablooey. Lazer Team has a solid comic premise that pays homage to a pastiche of 80s inspirations and pop-culture. I wanted to laugh. I think I even compelled myself to give it some pity laughs, but after 40 or so minutes a realization could no longer be ignored, and that was that Lazer Team just wasn’t that funny. The enthusiasm of its key cast members and their amiable nature go a long way to disguise the threadbare nature of too many of their first-draft jokes. The foursome never stretches beyond the entrenched lines of their formulaic archetypes. You come to expect specific jokes delivered from them, assigned by type in a way that reminds me of TV’s The Big Bang Theory. The character will rarely surprise you, which is also because their character arcs are so transparent. Hagan will atone for his failure to act and protect Herman while Herman will learn to move on from a past misfortune. Zach will learn to be less selfish. Woody will… well he doesn’t so much have an arc because he’s instantly made smarter thanks to the lien tech. The expected is a deathblow for comedy; if you can anticipate the joke, it’s rarely funny. Lazer Team so rarely subverts your expectations, playing things too safe.
The central conflict of four losers learning to work together as a team to save the world is rife with comic possibilities, even with the locked-in archetypes, but there’s far more attention spent on the sci-fi action and special effects. It’s a low budget film but there are plenty of action set pieces and special effects, many done in-house by the Rooster Teeth team. The effects range in effectiveness but are generally passable and even impressive at turns, especially with properly calibrated expectations. The problem is that the action sequences that are eating up so much creative space aren’t remotely memorable. There’s one car chase in the middle of the film where it feels like the guys have found a tone that works, one where the action incorporates the comedy and they work. For a fleeting moment I thought, “Maybe the whole movie will resemble this new shift.” The other problem is that it feels like the Rooster Teeth squad was stuck with how to get this story to feature-length. Structurally, this thing sure feels padded with additional set pieces that lurch and fail to justify the added time, especially the ex-wife cabin sequence.
The acting foursome is the best aspect of the movie and their amiable interaction is the one thing that Lazer Team has that got me through to the end. These actors know how to sell jokes, when to mug, and their amped-up enthusiasm helps sell the lesser material. I wish this foursome had a better script. Imagine something more low-key in concept that involved less explosions and more emphasis on utilizing their comic talents? I wish less time had been spent on Jones’ obnoxious egotistical quarterback and more on Free’s redneck-turned-British genius, a setup that seems to have far more potential than just being an expositional device. The slobs vs. snobs approach only gets the movie so far, and after that we have to care about the characters, and I just didn’t. Because of how one-note the characters are it’s hard to care about them. After your good will depletes with the actors, you’re left with a bunch of running around but little funny.
Lazer Team is a movie that’s hard to hate, especially if this kind of genre comedy is a favorite launching ground for jokes. It’s nowhere near as wretched as The Watch but it can’t come close to the sci-fi comedies that influenced the Rooster Teeth creative unit. What’s even more frustrating is that these guys have the talent to tell an original and hilarious movie and are creative enough to engineer some fun sci-fi set pieces. They have the talent and expertise to do better than this, to do better than Lazer Team, a movie that is too safe, too predictable, too padded, too formulaic, and just not funny enough. I demand more from people who specialize in comedy.
Nate’s Grade: C